Fire Stations vulnerable in Hurricane winds

Coping with Hurricane Charley: Two Perspectives- Fire Stations vulnerable in Hurricane winds

BY DAVID R. QUADERER

I recently responded to assist with the devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Charley. One place I visited was Charlotte County Station 12, just east of Interstate 75, a few miles south of Charlotte Harbor. It was considered a safe location. That was until Friday, August 13. As Hurricane Charley made landfall in Charlotte County, Station 12 was exposed to hurricane-force winds. As the winds intensified, the station was pelted with debris, and the power went out. The apparatus bay doors started to fail. Once inside the building, the winds began attacking the building’s structural integrity. Then the unthinkable happened: The roof over the apparatus bays lifted off and flew over six lanes of I-75, coming to rest several hundred yards away (photo 2).

Firefighters’ families and neighbors had come to Station 12 seeking refuge from the storm. They ended up scrambling for shelter. According to Deputy Chief Max Lopez, more than 30 people were inside Station 12 when the roof came off. Charlotte County Fire Chief Dennis Didio told me about a firefighter who walked across the apparatus room floor at Station 12 to smoke just before the bay doors blew in and the roof came off. He was stranded on the other side of the station until the storm passed. I arrived several days after the storm. To my amazement, Station 12 was still being staffed and responding to emergencies despite the loss of most of its roof.


(1) “The roof is gone, but the firemen aren’t” is how the sign in front of Charlotte County Station 12 read after the building lost its roof to the awesome 145-mph winds of Hurricane Charley. (Photos by author unless otherwise noted.)

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Amazingly, no firefighters were killed by this storm. Property damage was extensive; Charlotte County got hit hard. Some firefighters lost their homes; many others found their homes severely damaged. Several local groups, including International Association of Fire Fighters Locals 2546 and 4074, are engaged in fund-raising efforts and have organized work parties for firefighters affected by the storm.


(2-6) Damage to Charlotte County Station 12. [Photos by Deputy Chief Alvaro Sardina, Englewood (FL) Fire Department.]

Charley took a huge toll on the Florida fire service. Photos cannot accurately portray the damage caused by this storm. In Charlotte County, Charley destroyed four of the 14 stations and fire headquarters. Additionally, the City of Punta Gorda lost one station (photo 7). In Desoto County, more than 20 miles from where Charley came ashore, the City of Arcadia lost both of its fire stations.


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I was assigned to the Emergency Operations Center (EOC). This building is also home to the Sheriff’s Department and the 9-1-1 dispatch center. The staff evacuated and went to the County Jail a few blocks away to ride out the storm. When they returned after the storm, they found that much of the roof had been torn off. The building was so severely damaged that it had to be condemned. The operations will be moved as soon as it can be arranged.

  • Bay doors. The apparatus bay doors were the weak link. The major damage started with the bay doors’ failure. When the doors failed, the winds blew through the station and attacked the apparatus room roof. The roof’s failure exposed the rest of the station to the hurricane-force winds (photos 8, 9).

LESSONS LEARNED


(7) Punta Gorda Station 1. (Photo by Deputy Chief Alvaro Sardina, Englewood (FL) Fire Department.)

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(8) Bay doors at Station 12 and

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(9) Punta Gorda Station 1. [Photos by Deputy Chief Alvaro Sardina, Englewood (FL) Fire Department.]

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  • Flying debris. Station 7 is across the street from a mobile home park. After surveying the station, Didio believes the station would have made it except for having been pelted by flying debris.
  • Roofing material. Barrel tile roofs were prevalent, and in some areas required by deed restrictions. These tiles became missiles in the storm. Most of the Punta Gorda Police Department fleet was destroyed by barrel tiles. Shingles were not much better. The lucky ones just lost the shingles but kept the roof. I saw roof shingles imbedded in buildings and trees (photo 10).


(10) Note the black marks from flying shingles.

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  • Newer building construction. Newer construction held up better than construction before the building codes were changed after Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
  • Fire station construction. Fire stations need to be built to an even higher standard. Just building to the minimum code requirements is not enough. First, this is necessary for the safety of our personnel. Locations believed to be safe, more than 20 miles from where the storm came ashore, were destroyed. Then, after the storm passes, we are expected to provide service to the community.
  • Shelter construction. If you are sending people to a shelter, these people should expect that they will be safe there. Shelters should be rated for their intended use. In Arcadia, Florida, the Turner Agri-Civic Center was supposed to be a place of refuge for those fleeing Hurricane Charley. Instead, Charley ripped off the building’s roof. Part of the structure collapsed, forcing the 1,250 people inside to flee to DeSoto High School across the street (photos 11-13).


(11-13) The Arcadia (FL) Turner Agri-Civic Center. The 1,000-plus residents seeking shelter here were forced to flee to a school across the street when the roof was blown off and the walls collapsed. (Photos by Colonel Ken Pearson, Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.)

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  • Shutters. Buildings with hurricane shutters kept the flying debris from violating the building envelope. This helped, but some buildings still lost their roof even with shutters in place.
  • Backup plan. The EOC in New York City was destroyed in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001. Charlotte County lost its EOC in this event. What would you do if your headquarters or 9-1-1 center were destroyed? Do you have a secondary location to which you can move? What if your backup location is unusable?
  • Evacuation plan. A friend called me at the EOC before the storm and asked if I thought he should evacuate. I empathically told him he should, so he packed up his family and went to Orlando. This storm changed course unexpectedly; he wound up in the path of the storm, whereas his home was untouched. When you tell people to evacuate, tell them where to go.
  • The power of hurricanes. Do not underestimate the power of a hurricane. Many people feel that because they don’t live in an evacuation area, they will be okay. Charley has shown us that hurricanes, even when category 1 or 2, are very dangerous. When Charley reached Orlando, in the middle of the state, it still caused devastation. Downed trees, damaged buildings, and power outages were common. Charley was equivalent to an F2 tornado, 30 miles wide, making a swath through Florida.

DAVID R. QUADERER, a 24-year veteran of the fire service, is a division chief for Cedar Hammock Fire Rescue in Bradenton, Florida, and a fire coordinator for Manatee County, Florida. He has served in the incident command system for many types of emergencies, including plane crashes, floods, fires, and hurricanes.

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